Blue whales were dead before reaching Bonne Bay: scientist

Diane
Diane Crocker
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Fisheries officers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) were in Rocky Harbour on Tuesday taking samples, measurements and pictures of the last of four dead blue whales that drifted into the area in ice over the weekend.

Jack Lawson, a research scientist with DFO’s Marine Mammals Section, said the remaining whale was located near the fish plant in the town when the officers arrived.

He said the officers have marked the whale with orange spray paint so DFO can identify it from the air if it moves again.

Lawson said the whales were already dead when they drifted in with the ice in Bonne Bay.

“These weren’t fresh animals,” he said and described the remains as being “pretty blackened now because they’ve been exposed to the sun and air now for a few weeks.”

In fact, Lawson believes whales died around the third week in March and were possibly part of a pack of nine whales spotted dead in ice further up on the southwest coast.

He said after DFO was made aware of the nine dead whales on the southwest coast an aerial surveillance of the area was conducted on April 4 and the whales were seen about 40 or 50 miles off Cape Anguille.

Since that time, Lawson said two dead whales were spotted on April 15 in the middle of the Strait of Belle Isle further offshore from Bonne Bay by an experienced officer on a freighter crew.

Pictures taken during a surveillance flight on April 17 showed four dead whales about a mile offshore from Bonne Bay.

“The aircraft was coming back from the north towards Halifax and they made a flight over that area to have a look and they took some photographs of the whales in the ice for us just to help confirm,” he said.

Lawson said he plans to compare the photos taken from the air on April 17 with high resolution video taken on April 4 to see if he can find any patterns that look the same to confirm if the animals from Bonne Bay are part of the original group of nine from the southwest coast.

Lawson said it’s been a few years since DFO has seen an incident like this and noted the last time they had a dead animal in ice on the southwest coast was in 1992.

“This is more like the kind of historic pattern where we used to see the ice coming and going at great speed on the west coast, and I think this happened to catch the whales this year,” he said.

“Blue whales will try and push the limits if you will,” he said. “They’re right in on the ice, they’re feeding on the spring bloom of algae and then the zoo plankton that they like. And so they’re following it in as best they can to try and start feeding  as soon as they can in the spring, and I guess some of them pay the price for that risk.”

Once caught, Lawson said nothing can be done to help them. At 15 to 18 metres long and weighing between 60 and 80 tonnes, he said it’s impossible to lift them up and take them anywhere. And it’s difficult to get an icebreaker close to them. Lawson said doing so could push the ice on them more.

He said the only hope is a change in the wind.

Lawson said three other healthy adult blue whales were seen swimming south in open water during the April 4 flight, so DFO knows there were more than nine whales in the area and he’s hopeful those others didn’t get caught in ice.

But with only 250 adult blue whales in the northwest Atlantic population, Lawson said the loss of nine animals is significant.

“That’s almost four per cent of the population, which is equal to the reproductive output of a good population.”

As an example, he said the humpback whale population which seems to be doing good in the north Atlantic might actually grow by four or five per cent in a good year.

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Geographic location: Bonne Bay, Rocky Harbour, Cape Anguille.Since Halifax Atlantic

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